Fun With Formatting: Emails and Text Messages in Ebooks

“An epistolary novel is a novel written as a series of documents. The usual form is letters, although diary entries, newspaper clippings and other documents are sometimes used. Recently, electronic “documents” such as recordings and radio, blogs, and e-mails have also come into use. The word epistolary is derived from Latin from the Greek word ἐπιστολή epistolē, meaning a letter” (from Wikipedia)

All well and good, but what do those look like in an ebook? Notes and letters have a fairly standard format: offset margins, extra space before and after, sometimes italicized. Visually, it is easy to clue the reader in that they are looking at a note or letter. But what about an email? Or a text message?

I recently completed a book where the writer used emails and text messages. One chapter consisted entirely of emails and another chapter was a text message conversation. This particular author writes funny, quirky, sexy, offbeat romances. She likes her ebooks to be pretty and to stand out from the crowd–she wants them to look fun. (Which is tons of fun for me.) She wanted the emails to look like emails and the text messages to look like text messages.

textemail1For text messages inside the body of the ebook I used a sans serif font, bolded, and offset.

Would readers be confused if the text message looked the same as everything else? I doubt it. I know, from my own reading (and I read a LOT!) that visually interesting ebooks stand out. I am delighted by small touches–ornaments, unusual formatting, pictures–that break up the solid chunks of text.

For the chapter that consisted entirely of text messages, I pulled out the stops, using color blocks and right and left text alignment:

textemail2This is a tad over the top, but it fits with the playful tone of this story. For a story with a more serious tone, I would probably not use color blocks. I could use deep right/left margins to make the text messages appear to be in centered blocks. I might give them a border, too, to keep them from running into one another. Or, left align the text and have extra space between the messages. The key would be, as in all things ebooks, consistency. Pick a look, stick with it, and readers will happily follow along.

On to emails. I’ve formatted emails before, but this was the first time that I had a long string of them. The headers had to be included (because they are an important part of the story). I considered (briefly) placing each on its own “page.” But no, that would have killed the sense of rapid back and forth. This is what I came up with:

textemail3I set off each header with two lines (horizontal rules) and sans serif font with the sender bolded. For the body of the email I used regular serif font and a block paragraph style. To my eyes there is no mistaking these as anything other than emails. It’s a style that would work for any story that has emails, whether in a string or as a stand-alone.

So there you go, one way to handle text messages and emails. What about the rest of you? Have you found a fun/interesting way to make emails and text messages stand out in your ebook? Inquiring minds want to know.


Samples are from Penny Watson’s Sweet Adventure. Sweet-Adventure-ebook-cover-blue2

Fun with Formatting: Playing with Fonts and Images

First, I’m not a fan of embedding fonts in ebooks. It’s simple to do, but it’s a minefield. Not every device will support embedded fonts, some fonts have very restrictive conditions of use, others can cost big bucks for a license, and some are not complete (as in, you can get the regular font, but not italics or many of the special characters such as em dashes or acute or grave marks). Making everything behave, and doing so in legal compliance, is far more hassle than it’s worth. My opinion. And for those of you using Word to format your Kindle files, do not let Word lull you into thinking all is well because your formatted Word file looks good with your fancy fonts. It can turn into a royal mess–and let’s not get into how much bloat the file will contain!–and you can even break the ebook so the user cannot change fonts or margins. Your file will convert just fine if you stick to Times New Roman or Garamond. The conversion programs recognize those.

That said, it’s okay to mix things up a bit by taking advantage of the capabilities already built in to the ereading devices. (I’m going to focus on Kindles because I own Kindles, but most of this applies also to EPUB devices.)  Kindles offer a menu of font families in the user preferences. The Fire tablet offers four serif fonts (Caecilia, Georgia, Palatino, and Baskerville) and a sans serif font (Helvetica). Paperwhites have six fonts (serif, Caecilia, Caecilia Condensed, Baskerville, and Palatino; and sans serif, Futura and Helvetica). Even the older models offer readers a choice between serif and sans serif. You can mix them up.

White6In css styling, it’s easy as can be. Insert this line in your style declaration:

font-family: “Helvetica: , “Futura” , “sans serif” ;

What happens is this, the device will use Helvetica, if it has it, or Futura, if it has it, but if not, it will use whatever sans serif font it has available. This is a nice touch for chapter titles and, as in the example above, a sign, or a headline, or to set off such things as text messages or computer readouts. You can customize the look further by using all caps, small caps, increasing or decreasing the font size, bold and italics. Best of all, it will not bloat the file, cause legal problems or interfere with the user controls.

*          *          *

Let’s move on to images–a subject that reduces many formatters to gibbering cuss-buckets. I’ll leave such things as sizing, text wrapping, fixing images, etc. for another day. Let’s talk about the dreaded WHITE BOX. You know what I mean. You have a nice little glyph or scene break separator that adds a touch of oomph to your ebook and it looks beautiful on the Kindle screen.

White2White1

And then a user decides to read with a sepia background or in Night mode. And even though your image has a transparent background, this happens.

WHITE BOX.

I know of some users who prefer to use Night mode on their tablets. I, myself, will use Sepia when I’m reading long form at night when my eyes are tired. I barely notice the white boxes anymore, and I’m sure users of Night mode are pretty much the same way. It’s a quirk to get used to. As a formatter it drives me nuts. Especially since I own an ebook that has defeated the White Box problem, so I knew it could be done. I finally figured it out.

White4White5Kindles will render three types of image files: jpeg, gif and png. Each has their strengths and each has their weaknesses: namely image crispness and file size. The trick to defeating the white box is the gif image. In Paint.net, the program I use for making simple graphics, when I save a gif image there is an option to adjust the transparency. I set it at 255. What that does is, everything with a resolution less than “normal”, i.e. 255, is transparent. (I should be able to do this with png images, but I haven’t been able to. So, dear readers, if any of you have figured it out, let us know.)

You do need to be careful with gif images. If they are too big they will get a distorted, fuzzy look. Not every color renders well. You should use a simple palette. Don’t use percentages so they adjust to the screen size–that can go bad quickly. Instead declare the width. Solid black images can disappear in Night mode, but if you give your image a narrow stroke of 1-3 pixels in white or pale yellow, that will take care of that.

So there you go, two more ways to improve the look of your ebooks and make them stand out.


Examples are from:

BAD TIMES 3: AVENGING ANGELS, by Chuck Dixon
BOURBONS & BLONDES, by Anthony Venutolo

Ebook Formatting Services: Update

QuinnDecor1As some of you are aware, I removed my ebook services page. There were several reasons I did so, but the major one was that I really hate telling people “no” and I had too much going on in order to say “yes” to everyone who asked.

But the queries keep pouring in.

Here it is the 4th of July and the year is half over, and there are a lot of writers out there gearing up to get their books published in time for the next holiday season.

So this is to let you all know that I’ll be taking on new clients starting in August. Actually, the second half of August since the first part is already booked. I’ll activate my services/pricing page then.

Before you contact me, though, let me explain a little bit about myself and how I work.

  • It’s just me. No employees, no sub-contractors. If I do a job for you, it’s me doing everything.
  • I do custom work. I guess what you’d call me is a “boutique producer.” Every project is unique and I work very closely with writers to make their books stand out. I love a challenge.
  • I care passionately about books in all their forms and when I put my credit for interior design in the book, it’s because I’m proud of it.
  • I do my best to keep my prices as low as possible because 1) Many indie writers are on very tight budgets and I don’t want high prices preventing indies from producing a professional product; 2) As a reader, I don’t want high prices preventing indies from producing a professional product. Some books DO cost more to produce, but I’ll do my best to find creative ways to keep costs down.
  • There are many things I can do: digital formatting, print-on-demand formatting; text restoration from printed material; cover modifications; line editing; proofreading; custom graphics.
  • There are many things I cannot do: promotion; marketing; tell you how to distribute your work (I can tell you where, but YOU have to decide on the strategy).
  • Somebody is going to proofread your book. You can hire me to do it, hire another proofreader, or do it yourself. But if you want me to produce your book, you must make arrangements because if I’m going to work so hard to make it LOOK good, then you have to do your part to make the text as clean as possible.
  • The only time I do Word formats for ebooks is when the writer is using Smashwords and is also uploading an EPUB to them. I don’t do Word formats for any other market and I don’t do them as stand-alones.

QuinnDecor2In the meantime, if you have a project that you need done now and can’t wait until late August, I recommend Paul Salvette at bbebooksthailand.com or Guido Henkel. Either of them will take good care of you.

Also in the meantime, I’m getting a lot of queries about cover work. I can do cover modifications, including putting a spine and back cover on print on demand books, but I don’t do original artwork. I’ve been sending many people to Derek Murphy, but my understanding is that he is very popular and, hence, very busy. So if you have a favorite cover designer you can recommend for skill and professionalism, put a link in the comments and thank you in advance for helping out my readers.

Thanks all for your queries. I apologize to those I’ve had to turn away. I’ll be back up and available soon.

 

 

Managing File Sizes for Ebooks

The majority of fiction writer/publishers will not run into overall file size problems. Text doesn’t create monster files. Using graphics or illustrations can add significantly to the overall file size, but I’ve yet to create an ebook that exceeds –or even comes close to–Amazon’s 50MB limit (which may be changing due to the introduction of the new Fire HD tablets). Even with illustrations and graphics, I do my best to keep the overall file size under 5MB because of Amazon’s delivery fees ($.15 per MB). Those fees are charged against the publisher and can eat up royalties quickly.

As I said, most fiction writer/publishers will not run into problems with overall file size.

Where fiction writer/publishers do run into problems are with the size of individual chapter files within the ebook. When you use <h1> or <h2> tags in html, or the Heading 1 or Heading 2 style in a word processor, you are alerting the conversion programs (such as Calibre or KindleGen) that this is a new chapter and should be split into a new file.* If you don’t use the headings or tags, the conversion programs look for certain words–Chapter, Part, Section, etc.–to determine where the file should be split. What is NOT reliable at all is using page breaks (in a word processor) or the “page-break-before” command in html/CSS. (I have absolutely no idea why those work sometimes, but sometimes they don’t–my best guess is the whims or moods of the Digital God.)

I always split html (text) files into chapters or parts, which manages the overall ebook very nicely. Even though this example is from a novel (Prophet of Paradise by J. Harris Anderson) that is almost 200,000 words long, notice the size of the individual chapters:

File Size

What happens if you don’t use tags or headings and your chapters have titles the conversion programs don’t recognize? What happens if you don’t have chapters at all and your ebook is deliberately one long tract? If it runs up against the 300KB file size limit (approximately 45,000 words), several things could happen:

  • Your file fails to convert
  • The conversion program inserts page breaks whether they are appropriate or not
  • The file converts, but some devices tell the user the ebook can’t be loaded

If your files are less than 300KB, but still largish (over 150KB) your readers could experience serious screen lag as they page through your story. This is an important consideration for genre fiction writers since the chances are your readers are Super-Readers and might have hundreds or even thousands of ebooks loaded on their devices. They will not be happy if your file sizes and their addiction cause several seconds of lag every time they “turn” the page.

What to do?

  • If you are using a word processor to style your ebooks, use the Heading 1 and Heading 2 styles for your chapters, parts and sections. (Do NOT depend on the conversion programs to recognize your inserted page breaks!)
  • If you are styling in html, use the <h1> and <h2> tags.
  • If your project does not have natural breaks such as chapters or parts (it’s long short story or novella) consider a minor restructure. Use the page count as your guide and try to find natural breaks around the 15,000 word mark–a scene break or time or pov shift or even an illustration that sits on its own “page”.

* If you are using Calibre to convert your ebooks, you can check the file splits in Calibre’s EPUB editor. You’ll see the list of individual text/html files and can open each one on the viewer/edit screen. If you are experiencing inappropriate page breaks, you can manage the fixes in the editor.

 

 

Fun With Ebook Formatting: Make a Little List

Did you know that most ereaders handle lists quite nicely? Here are some screenshots from a Kindle Paperwhite of one of my projects:

List1

List2Tidy, eh? The best thing is, lists are very easy to do with css and html.

List3There are two types of lists: Ordered and Unordered. Ordered lists use numbers or letters to mark list items; Unordered lists use symbols such as bullets. The html tags: <ol> for ordered lists; <ul> for unordered lists; <li> for list entries.

List5For some reason ebooks don’t care for type declarations in the html. The EPUB validator issues klaxon call warnings about that. I have found best practice is to declare the styles in the css stylesheet then assign classes.

Styling in css:

List6You can have fun with lists, too. Lists can be nested–perfect for complex Tables of Contents. And take a look at the screenshot where it says Add a Fancy Symbol. The fast and simple way is to make an unordered list with a style declaration of “none” and then insert a named entity (in this case, the right arrow).

List4You can tart up your lists with circles, squares, Roman numerals, and even images. To learn more, the w3schools site has all the information you need. For list type properties, go here. Just keep in mind that ebooks don’t like the “type” declaration, so use either “class” or “style.”

Have fun!

 

Soft Hyphens for Kindle Books

I don’t care for automatic hyphenation in ebooks. The devices are pretty dumb and because they use an algorithm instead of an English major’s sensibilities, we get words like “mi- nute” instead of “min-ute” or “alt-hough” instead of “al-though.” While it is possible to turn on hyphenation for Kindle books, I’d rather not.

But. If a word has too many characters to fit on one line, this is what you get:

shy1Just like an oversized image, characters disappear off the screen. Because there are so many Kindle devices and apps, you have no idea what settings or screen size your reader might be using. Judicious use of soft hyphenation is an easy fix to an annoying problem.

Here is the same text, hyphenated, at various settings on the Kindle Previewer:

shy3shy4shy5What I did was use the named entity for a soft hyphen — &shy;

shy6The above example is a bit of overkill, but it was easy, so I did it. This way, no matter what preferences or screen size the user has, the text will not disappear off the screen.

If you’re building a non-fiction ebook, especially one with many long terms (technical or medical) inserting soft hyphens can prevent those unsightly gaps when a long word/term is jumped to the next page.

Have fun!

 

Creating a Professional Look for Ebooks

Can you spot an ebook produced by an amateur? I’m not talking about the writing–I’m talking about the interior production. Take a look at these side by side screenshots:

AmPro2 What about these?

AmPro1Take a good look and see if you can spot what I see.

Screenshot 1, upper left, self-published, amateur. I’m fairly certain the publisher converted a Word format. The story sounded interesting so I downloaded a sample. It looks like a manuscript and I knew it would trigger my Inner Editor and seriously affect my reading enjoyment, so I passed on buying the book.

Screenshot 2, upper right, trad-published, professional. The overall ebook is visually interesting, designed with the reader in mind. Purchased, read and enjoyed.

Screenshot 3, lower left, self-published, professional. One of my productions.

Screenshot 4, lower right, trad-published, amateur. Ugly and distracting. Purchased without sampling because this is one of my favorite authors, but I will definitely sample any other offerings from this publisher and if the next is as poorly done as this one, I’ll pass.

It drives me a little crazy when publishers put so much effort into ebook covers and give so little thought to the interior. I have never once heard a reader say, “Oh, I just loved the cover on Wendy Writer’s ebook, I think I will buy the next one.” Granted I’ve never heard one say, “Oh the formatting was so lovely, I think I’ll buy the next.” I have heard people say, “The sample was such a mess, I didn’t buy the book.” and “I wanted to like the book, but there were so many errors…” Worst of all, they say nothing, just refuse to buy another book by that particular publisher.

AmPro3Readers judge. When the ebook looks amateurish, they judge before they even start to read. They’ll be more aware of and less forgiving of typos. If the ebook makes any visual impression at all, it will probably be a bad one.

On the flip side, professionalism establishes trust. It sends a message to the reader: “You’re in good hands. Sit back, relax and enjoy.” Readers might not consciously recognize how much thought and effort you put into your formatting, but sub-consciously they will notice and it will have a favorable effect on their reading experience.

So how do you cross the line between amateur and pro? If you’re thinking about hiring someone, look at samples. (There are a lot of amateurs out there charging a lot of money for crappy formats.) If you are doing it yourself, start with

THE BASICS

  • Squeaky clean text.
  • Printer’s punctuation.
  • Proper paragraph spacing.
  • Proper paragraph indents.
  • Proofreading.

THE LAYOUT

  • Control your Front Matter (If potential readers have to page through 20 pages of front matter in the sample, you’ll probably lose the sale)
  • Always include a Table of Contents–and make it useful. If, by chance, your book’s ToC is a lengthy list of Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc., come up with a way to shorten it or move it to the back.
  • Make your back matter work for you. Include an author bio, and links to other works and your blog/website.
  • Consider text ornaments or other visuals, especially if your story is long or the text is dense. This gives readers some eye relief.

THE CONVERSION

  • One Size Does NOT Fit All. A Kindle format is different than an EPUB format.
  • Use the right tools. (I know this will cause howls of outrage, but it’s the truth: To create a professional quality ebook using Word, you need some mad-monkey Word-fu skills. If you have those skills, then you’ll have no problem learning html, so why don’t you?)

snoringIf your ebook is already published and you know it’s not up to professional standards, do not be afraid to do it over. That’s the beauty of ebooks–fluidity. Amazon makes it easy to update files. Other distributors aren’t so user-friendly, but updates are still possible. Taking your already published ebook from amateur to professional won’t recover past lost sales, but it will help future sales. It will definitely help sales for your other works.